Downsizing and Decluttering Tips: What To Do With Ephemera

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One of the things that has been difficult for me in sifting through the contents of first my parents’ home and now mine, has been what to do with all the vintage items, especially vintage items on paper that first my grandparents, then my parents, and then I have saved through the years.

This kind of material is called “ephemera,” and it is actually a very interesting category of collectibles. The dictionary tells us that ephemera is: “Items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.”

Among the things I had moved with me from place to place through the years were many brochures from touristic sites; old (some VERY old) postcards (some written on, some not); old maps; old Valentines; many ticket stubs and playbills; and even some postage stamps torn from letters. These things were kind of interesting at the time I originally kept them, but of course through the years they have become even more so, and some of them have become more valuable. (I suppose. I don’t really know!)

Collecting ephemera is for some people an interesting and fun hobby, and for some—those who take the time to do the research and make it a serious hobby, or even a professional expertise–it may even be a way to make money. For some artists it is material for collage. And for museums and libraries it can be valuable documentation of times gone by to share with the public.

But for me, I have come to realize, it is none of these things. For me it is really just more clutter, but clutter that I recognize as having historical and/or archival and/or artistic interest and value: therefore it is Not To Be Thrown Out. (My Inner Archivist absolutely will not allow me to do that.)

The question is, Inner Archivist, what do I do with it, then?

One of the experts I interviewed when we were writing our book was the director of a local historical museum in Minnesota, who told me that one of the things she wished people wouldn’t throw away when they were emptying out a home full of stuff was ephemera: she held up a birthday card she had recently received that was lying on her desk by way of example. She also explained to me that these are the kinds of things that become valuable and interesting to historians, because most people do, as a matter of course, throw them out. She told me that the curators of historical museums are often very interested in acquiring such things, and that even when the items in question are not going to be of interest for their collections, they still like having the chance to see them. She said that sometimes with certain items–for example, old photographs taken in another county or state, or printed materials from or about other places–the curators will take the items and “send them home.” Meaning that if the photographs, or documents, or whatever, don’t fit into the local collection, they may be sent to another historical museum that would very much appreciate having them.

I loved that phrase “send it home,” and I loved knowing that there was a network of professionals dedicated to preserving these items for posterity. And shortly after our book was published, I did salvage some items that I knew were of at least potential interest to the historical society near where my parents had grown up, and donated those items to them. And I got a thank you note from them that made me feel very much like I had done the right thing. That was a nice feeling.

But. There were still many more boxes of stuff to go through, and by the time my kids were grown and I was able to start (well, continue) going through them, I was far away from those places. And I still didn’t have the kind of time that would have been needed to spend sorting and deciding and hauling off to the nearest local historical society, because the next round of downsizing I engaged in was a far-too-rapid, radical downsizing that involved an international move.

So, in that round, I made a compromise with my Inner Archivist: I put all the tourist brochures, maps, old postcards and so on together, and took them to a thrift store and dropped them off, with just a brief comment that some of the things in the box might possibly be of interest to collectors. Then I walked away, and deliberately closed my mind to thinking about the possibility that they would be thrown out by an overzealous volunteer. I preferred to think that they would be bundled into batches for sale, and picked up by a very excited collector of whatever the items were. (You can guess which of these options my Inner Archivist would find the most pleasing.)

The point is, I was able to (finally) tell my Inner Archivist that this really just couldn’t be my problem anymore. My turn for watching over these potentially valuable historical items was over. I wasn’t going to throw potentially valuable historical artifacts into the garbage, but I wasn’t going to keep them any longer myself, either.

My Inner Archivist wasn’t completely satisfied, and quite honestly the better solution would have been to take them to a historical society where the possibility of an overly zealous volunteer throwing them out was not such a distinct possibility.

So. I guess the advice here is: if you have the time, and these things are, to you, really just clutter, do your local historical society a favor and let them do the deciding, or perhaps let them guide you to another institution that might welcome the items of ephemera you have.

And if you don’t have the time to do that, please just don’t throw them into the trash or the recycling barrel: at least leave open the possibility for someone to find and appreciate these treasured bits of our past, and to rescue them from obscurity.

But you don’t have to keep hauling them around from place to place, and you don’t have to have them filling up your closets or your storage locker. You really don’t. Trust me on this. I’ll bet even your Inner Archivist will be willing to give you a break.

For those who would like to know more about ephemera, here is a link to the Ephemera Society.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

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A Poetic Response to Hoarding

 

Every month, Goodreads, a social network for readers, and the ¡POETRY! group host a poetry contest. They feel it’s a great way to discover and support the work of emerging poets.

The June contest winner, Susan J. Raineri, wrote a thoughtful poem about hoarding.

 

The Hoarder

People let her down,
time after time.

In the empty bed,
where people left spaces,
things piled up.

Her life became choked
and crowded with stuff
that stayed put.
Rooms filled to their brims
up to the ceiling.

Until, she could barely
walk amongst it all;
more things, more and
more things.
At least, she could
count on these things.

They sat there
and collected dust,
but, they never left her.

She could choose
what to keep
and what to throw out.
Mostly, she kept.

We are all hoarders
of something;
holding on to memories,
collecting love and hate,
saving up envy
for other people’s lives,

 

The poet says in a note about the punctuation that the comma at the end is on purpose so that the reader can add whatever they think.

Do we hold onto our things because they make us feel secure? Yes, indeed, says the poet but that sense of security is illusory. Do we hold onto them because we are troubled by the spaces they will leave behind if we give them away? Spaces in our homes and in our lives can be challenging. Do we hold onto the stuff because we are afraid we’re throwing out our memories? It’s so difficult, as we say in our book, to “Keep the memories, toss the stuff.”

How do you think the poem should end? What is the last line you would write? Share your thoughts with us in the comment box.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Do Downsizing (and Decluttering) ALWAYS feel liberating?

DownsiingAgainWell, no. Honestly, they don’t. At least not for everyone. I know at least ONE person for whom it is not always so: myself!

And I have talked to quite a few others who feel the same. 🙂

This post is for those who may find it anywhere from a little bit, to very, discouraging to hear about how the process of downsizing is so liberating for others, when they don’t feel that way AT ALL…

This post is for those for whom the task is really difficult and painful, EVEN THOUGH WE ALL KNOW IT IS NECESSARY!!! 

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. As the coauthor of a book on downsizing, people often assume (quite reasonably) that I am someone who is really good at getting rid of things.

But this is SO not the case…I am, on the contrary, someone who has learned to grit my teeth, gather my resolve, roll up my sleeves, and then grin (not very merrily), and BEAR IT!

I am also a person who has managed to find ways to get past my aversion to getting rid of things. Writing our book helped me a lot to become this kind of person, and in the downsizing experiences I’ve engaged in since we wrote it, I found it very helpful to follow our own advice. I often tell people, I know our book is a good one, because it has helped me! 🙂

I think part of what our book offers that many decluttering and downsizing books do not, is acknowledgement that this process is really not so easy at all, especially for those people we call “keepers”–as well as more sympathy for the “keeper” point of view.

What we found through our own experiences, as well as in talking to people as we wrote our book, is that it IS possible, even for the most adamant keepers, to find ways to part with many of the things that are cluttering their homes, or garages, or storage lockers, or simply their minds; and it is possible to do it without breaking their hearts or destroying (or losing) precious memories.

But. I still say it is not all that easy, and for me it really hardly ever actually, truly feels “liberating.” For me, there is always something a little bit sad and unsettling about it.

The process certainly does include moments of feeling liberated, but a far more prevalent feeling is a kind of unnerving fluctuating between being plunged into the past in a not-very-pleasant way, in which the past feels more like a trap from which you’ll never escape than a pleasant field of memories. And then being kind of jolted from those moments into a present in which the words disorienting, or exhausting, or jangling come much more quickly to mind than liberating.

In my most recent bout of downsizing, I had some conversations with friends who were reminiscing (or commiserating) about their past, or current, decluttering projects. One of them remarked on a phenomenon I have noticed too. “You keep finding yourself holding objects that have no relation to each other in your two hands, and not knowing what to do with either one of them,” she said, with a bewildered and frustrated shake of her head. “I KNOW it!” I said, and together we shook our heads some more.

Why this should be so distressing is beyond me, but for me, and clearly for my friend as well, it just is.

I suppose it is possible that people who are much more adept at arranging physical spaces and objects than I am, or my friend is, don’t have this kind of thing happen to them nearly as much, or perhaps they find it challenging, or amusing, rather than distressing. I wouldn’t know.

But I do know that there are many ways to overcome the aversion to getting rid of things. We share a lot of those ways in our book. But there’s one new tactic I came up with in my last downsizing adventure that I hadn’t thought of before: invoking a war chant!

As I got into the car, and took a deep breath before driving out to the storage locker where the next stage of downsizing awaited me, I remembered that I had a CD in the car with some beautiful, and rather stirring, Icelandic folk music on it. I have to admit I’m not sure if this particular song really is a war chant of some kind, or not. But the music certainly sounds martial, or at least very determined, to me: and listening to it as I drove toward what I was thinking of as the Battle of the Storage Locker both made me laugh and gave me the surge of physical energy I needed to begin the task.

On another day, as I headed away from the storage locker, when what I needed was more calming down than revving up, I played some of my favorite soothing Hawaiian music.

Both things helped!

So, you might want to think about putting that into your bag of tricks, keepers of the world, next time you’re ready to attack “the beast”–music to downsize by!

OR…take a look at our last post, in which my coauthor has a list of 50 things that can be fairly easy to get rid of, even for most keepers. Especially if you put on a war chant! 🙂

Whatever works!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

Spring Cleaning: 50 Things to Get Rid of Right Now

Roz Chast’s wonderful take on the burden of too much stuff, from her book Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Spring cleaning. For some people, it means cleaning and scrubbing. For many, it means changing closets from winter clothes to summer clothes. And for a lot of us, spring cleaning means clearing out things we no longer need.

Lists of 50 things-to-get-rid-of appear regularly online or in shelter magazines. I have seen them and often think I should come up with a list of my own.

At a talk I gave last week, I asked each person in the audience to come up with 5 items that they could get rid of right away. Many of them came up with difficult items: a mother’s much-loved china service or a dear friend’s paintings. I suggested they were making things more difficult for themselves by starting with the challenging items rather than the easy ones.

So what are the easy things? Here’s my list of 50 things to get rid of right now. And some suggestions as to where to donate, recycle, or pass them along.

1. Magazines you haven’t read

Give magazines to doctors’ offices or hospital waiting rooms.

2. Old phones

Here’s where you can donate old phones.

3. Plastic leftover dishes without lids

You should replace your plastic containers regularly. Toss if they are scratched or cloudy.

4. Old hangers

Give wire ones to your dry cleaner.

5. Costume jewelry you don’t wear

Donate the jewelry to a thrift shop, give larger pieces to a nursery school’s dress-up corner, or donate to an art class.

6. Used-too-many-times workout gear

Recycle the fabric and treat yourself to new duds.

7. Plastic grocery bags

They can’t be recycled so take them back to the store.

8. Books: best sellers you have read

Or ones you never will: give them to friends or donate at one of these places.

9. Books: old reference books

Most of the information in reference books is dated or can be found online. Donate to one of the places listed here.

10. Old calendars and day planners

Record any necessary information, pull out pages with sensitive information so they can be shredded, then toss them.

11. Your children’s artwork

Take photos of your kids and the work, then toss the work. Here are some other suggestions.

12. Business clothes

If you don’t wear them or no longer go to the office, donate them to Dress for Success.

13. T-shirts

Especially the ones you keep around just to wear at home. Use them for rags or take them to fabric recycling.

14. Supplies from a hobby you abandoned

Give them to friends who are interested or donate them to an art teacher.

15. Worn out sheets, mattress pads, pillows

Take them to an animal shelter.

16. Old remotes

Recycle the old ones; here are some suggestions.

17. Blurry photos

Or ones where you don’t remember the people, or duplicates: offer them to an art teacher or just toss them.

18. Digital photos

The ones that are taking up too much space on your phone. Edit them.

19. Dead or leaking batteries

Here’s where you can recycle them.

20. Travel-size toiletries

Donate them to a homeless shelter.

21. Old paint

Dispose of it responsibly through help from Earth 911.

22. Specialty appliances

That special sandwich press, the Mickey Mouse waffle maker, the yogurt maker: recycle any appliance that you never use.

23. Clothes that don’t fit

Donate to your local thrift store.

24. Shoes that hurt; sneakers that are worn out

Here are ways to recycle and dispose of shoes.

25. Old greeting cards

Repurpose some of them into gift tags: donate the rest to the Girl Scouts or the YMCA or St. Jude’s Ranch for Children.

26. Frozen leftovers

Or containers of leftover food in the refrigerator: toss them all.

27. Damaged plates or cups

Anything with a crack or a chip on the rim should be tossed for safety reasons. You could donate them to a high school or college art teacher.

28. No longer current forms of entertainment

Recycle the VHS tapes and the CDs.

29. Old towels

Donate them to an animal shelter.

30. Kitchen utensils

Clean out that cluttered kitchen drawer and give away what you don’t use.

31. Plastic utensils and straws that come with take out food

Just toss them.

32. Prom dresses

And bridesmaids’ dresses and other evening wear. Donate them to girls in need.

33. Used medical equipment

This isn’t always easy but here are some suggestions.

34. Old medications

Check to see if your local pharmacy participates in the DEA’s Prescription Drug Take Back Day.

35. Used baby clothes

Donate them to your favorite charity.

36. Recipes you cut out and never use

Just toss them. You can look up recipes online.

37. Pens and pencils

Toss pens that don’t work and pencils with dried erasers.

38. Office supplies you don’t use

Donate yellow pads, post-it notes, paper clips, and anything you no longer use to the office of your favorite nonprofit organization or religious group.

39. Old spices

Just toss them out and buy new ones.

40. Old condiments

Toss them and anything else that’s stored on the refrigerator door.

41. Sports equipment

Here are some suggestions for donating and recycling items you no longer use.

42. Old makeup

Toss all mascara, blush, base, even nail polish.

43. Decades-old papers

File necessary medical and financial papers where you can find them or scan them, and then toss or shred what’s not needed.

44. Old keys

Give them to an art class for a collage.

45. Junk mail

Try to get rid of it before you come into the house.

46. Credit card receipts

Toss ones you don’t need to keep, especially those for consumables like food and restaurants.

47. Loose change

Wrap in wrappers and take it to the bank – or donate it!

48. Multiples – of anything

Keep one or two, give away the rest.

49.Things that belonged to your parents

See our book Moving On for help with letting go.

50. ___________________

What should the 50th item be? Let us know in the comment box below what’s on your list.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Q&A with Eve Schaub, Author of Year of No Clutter

A few weeks ago, while I was immersed in my own continuing downsizing saga, I made an absolutely wonderful discovery. Eve Schaub is what we call in our book, and on this blog, “a keeper.” She is also a writer who describes herself as “a serial memoirist.” In 2011 she wrote a blog about her family’s attempt to live for a year without any added sugar in their food, which later became the book “Year of No Sugar.”  This spring, Eve published the “Year of No Clutter,”  which describes her struggle to transform herself from a self-described “clutter-gatherer” into “a neat, organized person who can actually walk through every room of her house and does not feel the need to keep everything…” 

With refreshing–even brave–honesty, with sensitivity and self-deprecating wit, Eve tells the story of how that year went, and how her family helped her–more or less–achieve her goal. Her book is not only entertaining–in fact, often laugh-out-loud funny–and deeply insightful, it is full of practical ideas that will be helpful for the keepers of this world who are trying to talk themselves into getting rid of things, and the loved ones who are either helping them, or looking on in horror and trying not to interrupt. 

Eve recently returned to her Vermont home after a book tour, and was kind enough to answer my questions about the “Year of No Clutter” via email.  Her husband, Steve, and their two daughters, Greta and Ilsa, who were intimately involved in the process, also agreed to answer a couple of questions. Many thanks to the whole family for sharing their inspiring, and (mostly) successful story of dealing with the mountain of stuff in their “Hell Room.”  Janet Hulstrand 

JH: Steve, the book begins with a foreword by you that makes it abundantly clear what a tolerant, understanding, supportive, and forgiving person you are. How did you find the kindness and the generosity of spirit to be so supportive of  Eve and so patient with her, and with the situation in your home, throughout the Year of No Clutter? And do you have any thoughts to share with other husbands (or wives) who live with someone for whom dealing with clutter is a constant struggle? In particular, how do you keep the demon Anger from rising up, and make room for more productive emotions to emerge? 

Steve Schaub: Eve and I have a very giving and loving life together, and we’re both creative people, so solving this issue in a creative way (through writing about it) made total sense to me. I think the first thing is to be aware that the person you love is in a struggle and getting angry is the wrong approach. Trying to win an argument about what is of value, or what is or is not clutter is also the wrong approach–-you don’t win in a situation like this. You compromise, you listen, and you try to be aware of how very hard this is for someone you love.

JH: Eve, was there one particular moment of awareness, or event, that caused you to decide to launch into your attack on the challenge of decluttering the room you called your Hell Room? 

Eve: I describe in the book one especially memorable moment in which, in order to do his job, the energy assessment guy had to poke around the atrocious Hell Room–which was my nickname for the large spare room in our house that took up the slack for my extreme-keeping-behavior. Over the years, this room had gone from being a regular room, to a very cluttered storage room, to a giant sponge–while everywhere else in the house was relatively okay, this was the room that absorbed everything. Eventually there weren’t even paths through the stuff anymore, and knowing what was there, finding things, keeping things from being ruined, were activities that were getting harder and harder to do.

So here’s this poor energy-assessment guy, trying to get to the far corner of the room, stepping over piles, literally wading through the horribleness and I was utterly mortified. Up until that moment I had been able to remain in denial about how bad things had gotten. But now I was forced to see the room–and me–through his eyes, and I did not like what I saw one little bit. I wasn’t sure if it was possible to change–or rather, modify–the sort of person I was, but I realized for the first time that I wanted to try.

Year of No Clutter Room Photo Jan2015 Before.jpg

The “Hell Room” Before the Year of No Clutter. Photo by Stephen Schaub.

JH: What was one of your happiest moments in the process? The saddest, or most difficult? The most enlightening?

Eve: The happiest moments were the moments in which I felt I had achieved a clear mark of progress: the times I came home from dropping off a car full of things at the charity and consignment shops with a blissfully empty car, or the times when I was, for the first time, able to sit down and use a space that previously had been filled up with piles of stuff. Just sitting down in a newly cleared-off armchair to read a book became a small but significant triumph.

Of course, by contrast, the most difficult moments were those in which I felt I was spinning my wheels and getting nowhere: when I’d start out with a pile and get stymied halfway through, unable to make decisions or discard much of anything. Life has a way of getting in the way of decluttering with more pressing tasks like eating and sleeping and changing the cat litter and it’s sooooo easy to get sidetracked. When this happened I’d be very hard on myself and start to lose hope that anything would ever really get accomplished. The only remedy for this was to keep going– sooner or later there’d be some small victory again to make me feel back on track.

As for sadness, at some point I made the decision that regret/sadness was just going to be part of the bargain for getting control of my house and living space back. Because I had experienced loss so keenly in the past over things I had gotten rid of, I fully expected the process to be a very sad and upsetting one. Surprisingly, this time it wasn’t. I attribute this largely to two things: first, I had a newfound sense of what was at stake in this process, and that larger purpose helped me overcome that tendency to get bogged down in regret. The second thing was simply practice. I realized that the getting-rid-of-stuff muscle in my brain had lain so long unused that it had atrophied. So using it more and more, making lots and lots of decisions all the time, seemed to inoculate me to a degree against the tendency to obsess over one thing or another.

JH: At one point you write, “I’ve come to realize that the Stuff conundrum is one that people in our culture feel quite keenly, even when it isn’t on an epic scale…helplessness is the key emotion I hear [among people who talk about their issues with Stuff] and on some level I’m coming to see it as an issue of empowerment…” Can you say a bit more about this? What is the nature of this helplessness, and how can people who feel it begin to take control of the situation and become empowered? 

Eve: It really is all about empowerment: who’s in charge around here anyway? Me? Or my Stuff? Taking control for me meant giving myself a certain degree of permission in a very conscious way. I mentioned that I made a decision to accept that a certain measure of sadness and regret were going to figure in to my decluttering. I also knew the Murphy’s Law of Clutter: “If you get rid of an object, exactly forty-seven seconds later you will suddenly discover that you desperately NEED it!”

So I knew that sooner or later I would get rid of something and soon thereafter wish I hadn’t. In fact, I realized that much of my cluttering and keeping was based in a deep-seated fear of making a mistake, doing something that I would perceive in hindsight as being wrong. I was so averse to the idea of making a mistake that I’d end up making no decisions at all.

This brings me to what I arrived at as a definition of clutter. I wondered: how is “clutter” different from “a mess”? I realized that a mess is pretty straightforward. The kitchen is a mess, so you go in and clean it up. It’s pretty common sense: you wash things, you put things away. In fact, someone else could probably do it for you. But clutter? No one can solve your clutter for you. This is because clutter is about deferred decisions- items that don’t really go anywhere because we haven’t fully decided where or if they fit into our lives. Once I realized this distinction, I found it very helpful and empowering- the key to cleaning out my clutter was making decisions…thousands and thousands of decisions. If I made enough of them, one day I’d get my room–and the sense of control over my life and my living space–back again.

JH: One of the traps for people who have difficulty getting rid of stuff is the aversion to getting rid of the “perfectly good…[fill in the blank]” Can you share with our readers some of the things that helped you feel better about getting rid of perfectly-good items in your Year of No Clutter? 

Eve: At one point in the book I describe helping my father have a tag sale at his house in preparation for his move from New Jersey to Kansas. Now, my Dad is a big-time keeper– his level of clutter makes my petty one-room nonsense look like nothing. In fact, it was only once I was a grown-up and stood back and looked at the way my father and some other members of my family lived with their belongings that I began to see a pattern and started to wonder if all this cluttering and hoarding was genetic.

As you can imagine, having a tag sale with a tremendous keeper like my dad wasn’t going to be easy. I vividly recall at one point having a rather animated conversation over a brand new roll of shelf paper, still in the plastic, that had been lying around for at least a decade, unused. Dad objected to me selling it on the grounds that it was, of course, “perfectly good.”

“But Dad,” I found myself saying, somewhat desperately, “I’m pretty sure they have shelf paper in Kansas.”

What I tried to convince my Dad of, and what I tried to convince myself of (somewhat more successfully), was the idea that every item we own comes at some sort of cost. It’s a small cost, almost infinitesimal at times, but it’s there nonetheless… it’s the cost of owning that object, taking care of it, allotting space for it in your living space as well as in your brain. Sometimes there’s monetary cost too- such as when we have a storage locker.

When we get too many items under our jurisdiction–unless we are lucky enough to have a museum staff at our disposal to sort and organize and protect all our things–things start to happen. Not only do you not have the full, functioning use of your living environment, but you also can’t take good care of the things you care about most–there’s just too much stuff to be able to care for it all properly. And things begin to happen: the piles topple and your wedding album gets stepped on. The mice move in and begin eating your collection of baby clothes. There’s a cost.

So in a way we can think of decluttering as a process of prioritizing what we are willing to take care of and devote some time and energy and space to keeping. So then the decisions become easier: things that are replaceable, like shelf paper, or a “really great box,” or an extra lamp nobody really likes or needs, can all be dispensed with, so that we have more resources in our lives for the items that can’t be replaced, such as the baby clothes, the wedding album, the old notebooks from college and so on. The bonus is that items that are easily replaceable (i.e.,the perfectly good lamp) are often things somebody out there can use and would be delighted to have. So you avoid the dreaded landfill, clear out some much-needed space, AND make someone else happy in the bargain… it’s a win-win-win.

JH: Toward the end of the book, you talk about your “revelation” that “despite my knee-jerk tendency to keep, keep, keep! there were many things that I could, in fact, get rid of…” How important do you think it was the YOU were the one who was given the time and space in which to learn how to “give YOURSELF [my emphasis] a good stern talking to” and do what had to be done, rather than someone else “helping” you do it, or threatening you if you didn’t do it, or simply trying to shame you into doing it? 

Eve: Prior to my Year of No Clutter, it had happened at least twice that I’d had a friend over who said, oh, I can help you with this! And they’d start putting things in boxes or bags, holding things up and asking me questions. Both times I was uneasy, and ended up saying,” Okay! That’s enough! Thanks for your help!” I wasn’t ready, and therefore, no matter how good their intentions were, they weren’t able to be helpful.

I think it was absolutely pivotal for me that this was not a process that was imposed from without, but rather something I realized I really wanted/needed to do, and that I initiated and carried out. While researching for the book I learned that hoarders who have been forced to clean out, or who have had the cleaning out done for them, have a significantly higher propensity to be depressed and/or suicidal.

So I think that reality shows like Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive can actually be harmful, not only potentially to the people they are often forcing to clean out, but also to the people who watch these shows and think that forcing their friend or family member in a direction they’re reluctant to go is “for their own good.”

 JH: What would you say to those reading your book who are reading not because THEY have an issue with keeping too much stuff, but because they live with someone, or care about someone, who does. How can they be helpful to their loved ones who are struggling with the problem of Too Much Stuff? 

Eve: Although I’m the one in our house with the biggest “stuff problem,” it turned out that my husband had a significant amount of stuff in the Hell Room as well. So even while dealing with my own demons, I was also in the position of trying to convince someone else to confront their own.

My husband is kind of the opposite of me in how he deals with clutter: he has a tendency to want to simply throw everything away without even looking at it, just to get the process over with as quickly as possible, like ripping off a Band-Aid. But this can present other problems: once my husband donated a wallet with his social security card inside to the Salvation Army! (Fortunately a kind soul found and returned it.)

But the boxes in our Hell Room had things like photographic negatives and valuable camera equipment in them (my husband is a photographer), so we really did have to go through them. After lots of resistance from him to come look at the boxes, I finally brought all the boxes full of his stuff downstairs, into the dining room and let them sit there on the floor. They sat there for days, and quietly drove him crazy, because he couldn’t ignore them anymore. Finally one day after lunch he said “Okay, fine. Let’s go through a box.” After that every day we’d go through a box or two making decisions, emptying them out, putting things in proper places or discarding them. After only a few days it was all done and it seemed amazing that it had ever presented a problem at all.

What I found over the course of this year is that different strategies work for different people, so sometimes you need to experiment. Patience is key. Making sure the person feels respected in their choices and in control of their belongings and living space is too. I know I pushed the envelope a bit with my husband’s boxes- quietly confronting him with something he didn’t want to deal with–but ultimately it did work, perhaps because I let him work it out in his own time.

JH: Are there one or two key things you hope people who struggle with the problem of “too much stuff” will take away from reading your book? 

Eve: First, I really hope people who struggle with stuff come away from the book with the feeling that they are not alone. I’m amazed at the fact that every person I talk to about my book has a connection to the problem of too much stuff–either they have a stuff problem, or someone they know does. It’s a much more common problem than people think.

Another important realization I came to during this project was that decluttering isn’t something you have done–and then it’s over. Rather, it’s something you do–it becomes a part of the way you live your life. Although decluttering might come naturally to some, for a “too much stuff” person like me it is a conscious, carefully considered decision I make to part with some things while keeping others, realizing that I only have so much space and energy and time to give to my things.

Just like making your bed in the morning or brushing your teeth, decluttering has now become a part of my regular routine: discarding things, bringing clothing to the consignment shop with every new season, books to the library sale, and so on. Sometimes it shows up in the form of a small new habit, such as, when I come home from a play, recycling the program right away, or deciding not to feel guilty about giving away a gift that I know I’ll never use. Above all it means making decisions, not deferring them, and knowing that my decisions won’t always be perfect, but that it’s worth it in the long run, because it means I will get to use and enjoy my objects and my home much, much more.

I’m not “cured” of cluttering, and I’ll probably always struggle with stuff on some level. By no means is my house going to be featured in the next issue of House Beautiful either, but it’s so much better and more functional than it was. No matter how frustrating decluttering seems, I’d say: don’t despair. I’m living proof that change is possible.

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The “Hell Room” After: No Longer a Hell Room! Photo by Stephen Schaub.

JH: Since this project was really a family affair, if Greta and/or Ilsa would like to add a short, one-sentence summary of how they feel about the outcome of the Year of No Clutter, I think it would be nice to give them a chance to share their perspective too. I guess what I’d really like to ask them is, what is the best thing that happened to, or for, your family, in the Year of No Clutter?

Greta (age 17): The rediscovery of family heirlooms, and being able to use them again.

Ilsa (age 12): I guess that the best thing would be, the discovering of old treasures and heirlooms, but also being able to walk in the room that you cleaned and not feeling guilty about not have cleaned it, and being able to feel that you did the right thing. Maybe something you no longer needed and gave away is in the hands of someone who truly needs or appreciates that item more than stuffing it in a box or throwing it in a pile.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. You can learn more about Eve Schaub on her website. You can also take a short video tour of the newly decluttered “Hell Room” here

Earth Day 2017: How Will You Celebrate?

The theme for the 2017 Earth Day, the 47th year of this holiday celebrating the earth, is Environmental and Climate Literacy. The organizers of Earth Day want to empower everyone with the knowledge to act in defense of environmental protection. The hashtag for the event is #CountTo50.

Here are some ways to celebrate the day.

Create no waste.

Who better than Recyclebank to challenge us to A Day Without Waste? Accept their challenge and they will help coach you through the day. And you can follow their own progress on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #ZeroWasteDay.

https://livegreen.recyclebank.com/a-day-without-waste?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_content=ADayWithoutWaste&utm_campaign=Seasonal

Recycle your old technology.

Honor the earth and get money back too. The office supply company Staples is offering a $10 off $30 coupon for recycling your unused tech.

http://www.staples.com/sbd/cre/marketing/sustainability-center/earth-day/index.html

Compost your trash.

Are you ready to dispose of your potato peelings and eggshells in an earth-friendly way? Here’s some help to get you started.

http://www.makeandtakes.com/its-not-trashy-to-compost

Join the March for Science.

Earth Day Network and the March for Science are co-organizing a rally and teach-in on the National Mall in that will include speeches and trainings, musical performances, and a march through the streets of Washington, D.C. Gather at 8 am and the teach-in will begin at 9 am.

http://www.earthday.org/marchforscience/

Switch to clean energy.

You can take one simple step and along with others make a big impact together – for a brighter, healthier future.

http://www.earthdayinitiative.org/countto50

Learn more about climate change.

“The climate has always been changing – but the pace at which it is now changing is faster than humans have ever seen. Climate change threatens to make parts of the planet uninhabitable or inhospitable for life as we know… In short, it is the most pressing global challenge we have ever faced.”

http://www.conservation.org/what/Pages/Climate.aspx

How are you going to give back on Earth Day 2017? How will you contribute to a more sustainable future? Share your plans for the day in a comment below. We would love to hear from you.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Downsizing Chronicles: The Storage Locker, Part Two

DownsiingAgain

Most of the stuff you see in this picture has gone on its way…but there’s still a lot inside the storage locker! 😦

Oh, well. So my plan to empty my storage unit during the month of March was a bit overly ambitious, and even more overly optimistic.

The point is, as one of our readers pointed out in a comment posted on my last post (and I take some comfort in the fact that she is a professional organizer!) I made progress! And that is what I am choosing to focus on.

It turns out that two of the three complicating factors to my move turned out to be if not insurmountable obstacles, clear signs that my idea of totally emptying my storage unit, moving some of it to France, and some of it to Minnesota, all within less than a month, turned out to be not so doable. Or at least not the smartest thing to do at this time, for a variety of reasons.

So: a lot of my “stuff” is still in the same storage locker where I left it two years ago.

And so, instead of the inspiring picture of an empty locker that I had so optimistically imagined posting today, here instead is my interim report, unaccompanied by a photo of the storage unit because even though a lot of stuff went out of there, it doesn’t actually look so much like it did!!! 😦 (My coauthor has been able to post such a picture, of her emptied storage locker, in this post, and the fact she has been able to do so I hold before me as an inspiring vision of what is possible, even for those of us who are, at heart, “keepers, not throwers.” 🙂 )

AND YET! The truth is, that there IS a lot less stuff in the locker now than there was when I arrived there in early March.  Some of what was in there (very little!) went to my millennial, minimalist son, who is now furnishing his first apartment in New York. A lot more of it (books, lamps, dishes, towels, etc) went to various local thrift stores and charities.

Also, many more pounds of paper went into recycling bins in Maryland. (Some of this was paper I had no problem getting rid of, but had not had time to do in my far-too-rapid moving out of my home two years ago; some of what I dumped this time was excruciating for me to do, but I did it. There will be more on that process later..)

A few of the precious things I wanted to have with me (mostly family pictures, some sheet music, a very few select books, a quilt made for me by my mom and my two grandmothers, and some art work) were packed into the one almost-empty suitcase I had brought with me, and the rest filled a second suitcase that was in the storage unit. Here are a few of the things that made it into my suitcases for my return to France.

A few small items of jewelry and other antique objects that I realized I am probably never going to wear or have room to display, I left in my favorite local thrift store, which also takes some items on consignment. There I had an interesting lesson in What to Do With Old Jewelry and Other Things Like That from the kind and knowledgeable volunteers. (There will be more on why they became my favorites in another post too…)

JJ&KateStJohnsOpShop

Me with my new friend Kay (at left), one of the volunteers at the St. John’s Norwood Op Shop in Bethesda, Maryland. Here she is reviewing and pricing some of the things I left with them on consignment. The volunteers at St. John’s Norwood are very nice people, they run a well-organized shop, and the proceeds from the store benefit local charities. I felt good about leaving my stuff there!

This journey really began, for me, with the downsizing of my parents’ home more than 15 years ago, the experience that led to writing the book that my coauthor and I wrote, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. And as we have pointed out in our book, for most people downsizing doesn’t happen just once. For most people it happens several times in their lives.

Having just emerged from a fresh bout with this very human, often very physically and emotionally challenging activity, has brought both practical information and tips, and material for contemplation and reflection back into the forefront of my mind. There will be more of all that to share in the weeks and months to come. I hope that some of what I remembered, discovered, rediscovered, or learned for the first time this time, will help others get through the experience less painfully, more joyfully. It can be done! 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.